Poke by Ian Elliott
“It was a sunny day. I turned the left rear corner of a white wooden garage and pushed between bushes on my right and the garage wall. Reaching the front corner, I saw a small backyard lawn and the rear of an arrow-flight house. Immediately in front of me were two wooden lawn chairs, as white as the garage, with vertical and oblique slats in a fan-pattern for backs.
A little boy, not yet four years old, was playing in a dirt pile with two yellow metal trucks; one a toy steam shovel, the other a dump truck. He looked up as I came around the lawn chair onto the grass. He had a light olive complexion and thick brown curly hair. He was dressed in green overalls.
“He smiled at me and said his name was Buster. I said I was Poke. I knew that wasn’t my name, but I had just poked my way through the bushes and said the first thing that came into my head. As I gave my name, I looked at myself. I was three or four years older than the boy, and I had sandy hair. “Want to play?” he asked, and I nodded and played in the dirt with him for an hour or so. We didn’t talk. He filled the dump truck with dirt and I drove it away, just a few feet to the other side of the little pit at the right rear corner of his grandfather’s house.
“What is an arrow-flight house?” asked Dr. Anders. “An arrow-flight house?” I replied “They are quite common in Queens. They are long and tall, with a basement, ground and upstairs floors, and an attic. But they are very narrow, hence the name arrow-flight.”
“After an hour or so someone from inside the house called to Buster. I waved good-bye and went back around the lawn chair and pushed through the bushes to the rear corner of the garage. After I turned the corner, I took three more steps and woke up.”
The therapist stopped the recorder. “Was this a recurring dream?” he asked. “I don’t mean recurring exactly. I mean, have you had similar dreams?”
The patient, a lean man of about forty, partly unshaven with an earring in his left ear, nodded. “That was the first dream. There have been others. They are entirely consistent. I seem to visit the little boy every few days. We never say anything except hi and bye. We just play together.”
“But recently, something new happened. Better switch on the recorder again. This was the third or fourth dream.”
Dr. Anders turned the recorder on again and spoke into it: “Third or fourth dream.”
The man continued: “The boy was there as usual, but this time there was a woman with him, a stout older woman, hanging up washing on a clothesline. He handed her the clothes pegs as she hung the clothes. She showed him how some of the pegs were the old, stiff wooden kind, while others were the new spring-action variety.
“Buster looked around and saw me. She looked too, and she looked right through me. She didn’t see me. She went on hanging up the clothes, and he kept helping her. When she was finished, she hugged him and went inside with the laundry basket and the smaller basket holding the clothes-pegs.
“Then he said hi and we played together as usual. He asked me where I lived, and I pointed back along the side of the garage. ‘I live back there,’ I said. After a while we said bye and I went back as before.”
A week went by before the patient was back with some more dreams.
“Last night’s dream, no one was in the yard, but there was a ladder that had been set up as a barrier in the driveway. I pushed past and was just in time to see him come out of the front door with a very tall man. Buster was dressed in finer clothes now and wore a sort of French beret. The very tall man held his hand and they headed to the right, up the street a block and a half to Hillside Avenue. They disappeared to the right around the corner. The boy seemed uncomfortable with the beret and kept plucking at it, but the man wouldn’t let him take it off.
“As they headed up 204th Street, a young, vivacious woman came out and watched them walk away. She was smirking. No one saw me, as usual.
“I stayed in the path between the bushes and garage and waited for them to return. For some reason I felt shy about staying in the backyard, even though I knew I was invisible. Time passed slowly, with nothing much happening, and I remember thinking at the time this was unusual for a dream. Then suddenly I knew this was a dream, and from then on I knew I was dreaming.
“After some time had passed, Buster and the very tall man, whom I suddenly knew was his father, returned and went into the house. A little later, the boy emerged in his play clothes. He looked around for me and I emerged from the bushes.”
“Why do you call him ‘Buster’ sometimes, and sometimes just ‘the boy?’” interrupted the therapist.
“Because sometimes he seems more impersonal to me, and at other times I think of his name, obviously his nickname. No one is named Buster.”
“When we were done playing as usual, Buster pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was the beret. He asked me to take it.
“Aunt Dothy says I look like a girl in it,’ he said with an angry catch at his throat. I said nothing but took it and we said bye. I pushed past the bushes and went around the rear corner of the garage. Then I noticed the beret had disappeared. After two or three more steps I woke up. That was the latest dream.”
Dr. Anders stopped the recorder. “What do you think these dreams mean? I mean, what do they tell you here and now?”
“Well,” said his patient, “I can tell you one thing they mean to me. It came to me as I took the beret and went back into the bushes. It was as though I had just woken up, but the dream was still there. I recognized the boy. He was me. I remembered my early childhood nickname of Buster.
“Now I remember the beret. I remember my father questioning me about where it was. But this is a different sort of memory, it’s fresh. You know how old memories fade and get dusty from too much use? I remember how upset my father was with me, but it seems to have happened just last week.”
“Who is Aunt Dothy? I suppose her name was Dorothy?”
“Yes, that was her name. She was married to my mother’s brother. We were all crowded into my grandparents’ home, right after the war. She teased me about the beret. But that is not all.”
The patient squirmed and looked embarrassed.
“What is it? Tell me.”
“I can’t remember it very clearly. But I think I was playing with myself, and she caught me at it. She said she would tell my father. That’s all I remember about that.”
“When you took the beret, this was a new action, wasn’t it? You say now you know you are dreaming in these dreams, so this was a conscious action on your part, interfering with the normal course of the dream. Is that your impression?”
“It must be. It seems so fresh, so much more real than the rest of the dream. And as soon as I took the beret, the dream became much more vivid. I was afraid I would wake up at that point and I really, really wanted to take away the beret. So I said bye fast and went back into the bushes.
Dr. Anders took up his appointment book. “I’d like to see you the same time next week,” he said. “And I’d like you to take special notice of these moments when you seem to be interfering with the dreams.”
“That’ll be easy,” said his patient. “And the funny thing is, now that I have interfered, I seem to know what is coming next.”
“Well, don’t tell me,” said Dr. Anders. “Save it for next Friday.”
The patient left. Dr. Anders wrote in his notes “Patient seems to be gradually getting into touch with his childhood abuse.” Then he put out the lights and sat for some time thinking in the dark.
On an impulse, he phoned his patient the morning of the appointment and reminded him to come in. The patient seemed surprised to hear from him, but showed up on time.
He looked like a different person. His movements and gestures before had been somewhat over-refined, almost effeminate. This had changed. The ear-ring was gone also, and the therapist noted with surprise that there was no mark where it had been. He also seemed stockier, more solid.
“Have you been working out?” he asked his patient.
“No more than usual. I play basketball with some friends on the weekends.”
Dr. Anders reached for the recorder on his desk. “Any more dreams?”
“Just one. They seem to have stopped.”
The therapist turned on the recorder.
“I came out from the bushes. Buster wasn’t there, just like last week. I edged past the ladder in the driveway and waited by the left front corner of the arrow-flight house. Moments later, he came out the front door with his – my – father. I noticed with some satisfaction that he wasn’t wearing the beret. Apparently it hadn’t been found.”
“They walked hand in hand up the street again, towards Hillside Avenue. I knew they were going to a little café to get a coke for Buster from ‘the large-a coke man,’ a vendor with an Italian accent. I was right behind them as they turned the corner. Buster saw me, and the tall man stopped.
“I knew what was coming so well I could have written the lines myself. ‘I understand you’ve been playing with yourself down there,’ the tall man said. ’Better stop, or you’ll turn into a girl.’
“‘That can’t happen,’ I blurted out, just as the boy was starting to feel excited. At my words his excitement turned into anger.
“’Poke says that can’t happen,’ he said to the tall man. The man was taken aback. ’Who the hell, uh, heck is Poke?’ he asked.
“’Poke is my friend. He plays with me. He comes out of the bushes.’
“Out of the bushes?’ the man laughed. They went up to the little café and I guess bought a coke.
“When they came back, I waved to Buster before going back into the bushes. I knew it was the last dream, and told him I had to go away now, but I would always be his friend. He looked sad but waved and we said bye. I went around the rear corner of the garage. The beret was there. I picked it up and took two more steps, then woke up.
“Any fresh memories?” Dr. Anders asked.
“It’s hard to say. I have a few old ones. I remember my mother talking to me and asking me about my imaginary playmate. She asked his name, and I told her it was Poke. She said, ‘You know, Bus, Poke isn’t real. It’s just your imagination, like when you dream at night. You have lots of real friends now. You don’t have to play with Poke anymore.’
“I said Poke went away, and she seemed relieved. That is an old memory, one I had before the dreams started. But almost everything else has changed. My other memories are nearly all fresh now. My father stopped taking me to the large-a coke man. I didn’t see him so much after that. My uncle and Aunt ‘Dothy’ moved out to Cambria Heights with my cousins. My grandfather died, an old memory. My father and mother built a little Cape Cod bungalow out in Nassau County. A few years later they divorced, and we moved back to the city. I went to a rough school and got sort of rough myself. And here I am.”
“And here you are,” said Dr. Anders, but without believing it, because this was not quite the same man who had been coming for therapy for the past two or three months.
“I think I feel all right now. I think the dreams are over and done with,” said his patient. “Thanks for being here for me, Doc.”
The patient left. Dr. Anders looked at the closed door. Then he looked down at the patient’s chair.
In it was a child’s beret.